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The Problem With High School Nostalgia

At a time when formal education is changing to better prepare students for success in college and their careers, a sense of nostalgia threatens to hold us back

By: Peter Cohen
Tags: Article, Career & Workforce, PreK-12, Education Technology, Education Methods, Corporate

This article originally appeared in U.S. News & World Report on February 23, 2016 and can be viewed here.

For Americans, high school isn't just an educational experience, it's a cultural touchstone. From "The Breakfast Club" to "Friday Night Lights" to "Glee," our popular conception of high school generally focuses on the hallmarks of adolescence: friendships and rebellion, football games and proms. But at a time when formal education is changing to better prepare students for success in college and their careers, this sense of nostalgia threatens to hold us back.

High school needs to change. Graduation rates may have reached a historic high, but too many students arrive at college unprepared to do college-level work, putting them on a path to join the now 41 percent of four-year college students who fail to graduate within six years. Particularly given our $1.2 trillion student debt, we must ask whether our current high school system is capable of achieving its purpose: preparing all students for success in college and their careers. When we look at data that shows that the current high school system is failing minority students and students of low-income families at a disproportionately high rate, it becomes clearer that action needs to be taken.

The topic has gained steam throughout the world of education: September saw the launch of a $50 million initiative to rethink high school, and in November, the White House announced a $350 million initiative in support of "next generation" high schools.

If we were to reinvent the high school experience from the ground up, where would we begin? Here's a look at three approaches designed to prepare students for success in higher education and give them practical skills they can use to find gainful employment – regardless of which path they choose.

Draw closer connections between education and students' careers. The most important thing we can do to better prepare students is strengthen the connection between what they are learning in high school and their future careers. By offering students a wider variety of courses to prepare them for an individualized career path – whether that career requires an advanced degree or a welding certificate – high schools can help produce more employable graduates and more engaged students in the process.

The modern high school curriculum can and must do a better job of addressing the needs of these straight-to-workforce graduates, as well as the needs of the roughly 15 percent of high school graduates who are neither employed nor enrolled in college. Of the 32 percent of recent (2014) high school graduates who have not enrolled in a college or university, more than half are already working, and another 21 percent are looking for work.

In much the same way that a great shop class could have provided past generations with the foundation for middle-class success, an excellent coding class can help lay the groundwork for today's students to achieve middle- and even upper-class incomes. A broad-based curriculum will always be at the heart of high school, but connections to what students will one day do to earn a living will encourage students to feel invested in their education and stay on track for success.

Use technology to refresh how we structure the high school experience. By investing in education infrastructure, particularly in personalized learning tools, we can improve students' career readiness and increase their motivation to learn. According to a survey we recently conducted, college students find adaptive learning technologies to be the most effective form of study technology: 84 percent report that they've seen a moderate or major improvement in grades with its help. In addition, 87 percent of college students say that having access to analytics relating to their academic performance can have a positive effect on their learning experience.

While most online courses are still aimed primarily at college students and adults, online and distance-learning has begun to make inroads at the high school level. That's great news: Short of completely doing away with our antiquated agrarian school calendar, online education offers perhaps our best chance of ensuring that learning continues throughout the summer months.

These technologies and applications haven't yet permeated high school the same way they have higher education, but their potential is clear. The key is to implement them in a responsible way, providing educators and students with the support that they will need to succeed.

Rethink academic credentialing and include employers in the conversation. Technology has another potential application: helping us reimagine how high school is structured, and what a diploma really means. Some higher education institutions are already using personalized technology to shift to competency-based education models, in which students progress as they demonstrate mastery of a course's given learning objectives. Competency-based models are just beginning to take hold in high school, but we are not far away from asking whether it still makes sense to group students by grade level, ability, learning style or area of academic focus.

These models can also help us find ways to certify students' skills in areas beyond their core areas of study. Once high schools are measuring student progress at the skill level, they can award so-called micro-credentials to students who master skills that are adjacent to the main focus of their coursework. High schools could then partner with local community colleges to ensure that the high school's micro-credentials align with the requirements of the community college's certificate program, allowing high school students to earn certificates from accredited colleges before (or even regardless of whether) they graduate from high school.

These initiatives can only succeed if they are accepted by colleges and employers. Fortunately, a few innovative programs are already getting their buy-in, with remarkable success. Brooklyn-based P-TECH – the product of a partnership between IBM, the New York City Department of Education, the City University of New York and New York City College of Technology – is a high school that prepares students to graduate with an associate's degree, two years of college credit and an internship with IBM. The program has garnered widespread acclaim, including a mention in President Barack Obama's 2013 State of the Union address. In August, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced funding to expand the total number of P-TECH schools across the state to 33.

Work together toward the future. While the traditional high school that we remember might be effective at conjuring feelings of warm nostalgia, it's sorely lacking when it comes to its ultimate goal: preparing all students for success after they graduate. Alone, none of the above strategies is likely to produce the change we need. But with collaboration from policymakers, educators, students and parents, we can begin to build a system that can better serve all of our students – and bring high school into the future.